They called it the Wild Mouse, and it wasn’t the longest or largest roller coaster at Edgewater, Detroit’s now-defunct midcentury amusement park (1927-1981), but it certainly was the scariest — engineered so that the cars felt like they were about to lurch off the tracks before miraculously pivoting then hurtling down the next dip. I rode it just once — my parents had deemed Edgewater’s fast rides and even faster crowd too dangerous — so my indulgent grandfather, Zimmy, took me. In hindsight, the exhilaration I felt on the Wild Mouse should have raised more than six red flags. Thrill seeking and subterfuge would soon become the brick and mortar of my adolescence, a generally repressed existence that was enlivened with largely clandestine visits to any semblance of a midway — be it at a synagogue carnival or the annual Michigan State Fair.
I was the perfect addict: My cast-iron stomach could not be churned by the swirling motion and Wonder Bread primary-colors-and-clowns visuals of the Tilt-A-Whirl or the centrifugal force of the Salt and Pepper Shakers, a pair of rocket ships on rotating arms whose 360-degree backward arcs turned my giddy smile into a rictus grin. These were not merely rides, but transportation to a heightened state. The rush of the physical jolts, the overload of gaudy lights and blaring pop music, and the menacing-yet-sexy otherness of the carnival world unleashed a socially acceptable primal boy scream that was as erotic as it was cathartic. And it was at these fun fairs that I developed the only athleticism in my severely uncoordinated body: mastering the ability to toss a plastic ring around the neck of a Coke bottle.
And so, the recent release of Pacific Ocean Park: The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles’ Space-Age Nautical Pleasure Pier (Process Media, $34.95) is a cause for celebration, not merely for myself and other amusement park fanatics but also for aficionados of midcentury modern design, 1960s pop culture, and Hollywood lore. Presented in a Cinemascope-proportioned letterbox format, the lavishly illustrated book recounts the history of what was perhaps the most original and influential tourist attraction in the United States.
Disneyland, in Orange County’s anemic Anaheim, may have laid claim to the title of “The Happiest Place on Earth,” but Pacific Ocean Park, perched on a pier between staid Santa Monica and funky Venice, was most definitely the hippest. A nexus of Jetsons-esque architectural fantasy with Jules Verne and Ray Bradbury influences, it served as a breeding ground for a youth quake of West Coast teenage trends — from rock ’n’ roll beach parties, surf music, and Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon movies to Summer of Love psychedelia — that reverberated through Middle America.
Domenic Priore, the author of such cultural histories as Riot on Sunset Strip: Rock ’n’ Roll’s Last Stand in Hollywood, Pop Surf Culture: Music, Design, Film and Fashion from the Bohemian Surf Boom, and Smile: The Story of Brian Wilson’s Lost Masterpiece, teamed with theme park designer Christopher Merritt (who is currently working on a Disneyland in Shanghai) to tell the story of Pacific Ocean Park. Affectionately and appropriately known as P.O.P., it had a lifespan of just over a decade, rising to eclipse gate receipts at Disneyland and then quite literally crumbling into the sea. By the 1970s, the pier and its seedy surroundings became known as Dogtown and were famous for the surfers who would ride waves between the ruined pilings.
“It became a very mysterious looking place,” Dogtown and Z-Boys director Stacy Peralta tells the authors. “All the rides were rusting and decomposing. It was a forbidden place, a place that looked like a good dream that had turned bad.”
In its brief heyday, Pacific Ocean Park boasted the traditional arcades, Ferris wheels, and funhouses, plus a host of innovative simulations including the “underwater” Neptune’s Kingdom and the space-age Flight to Mars. Guests could float above the midway and over the ocean in bubbles on the Ocean Skyway or ride the Tiki-styled Mystery Island Banana Train (complete with an erupting volcano). The park also incorporated marine life displays and had a Sea Circus with a baby sea elephant that danced to rock ’n’ roll, a diving mule, and a lifeboat helmed by chimpanzees. And it had a ballroom that hosted both Lawrence Welk and Big Brother and the Holding Company.
Tapping into a treasure trove of wildly original concept renderings, period photographs, fashion sketches, and promotional materials, Priore and Merritt provide splendid examples of Atomic Age graphic design that conjure the wacky exuberance and carnival spirit of P.O.P. In addition to these visual treats, the authors bolster their own expertise with eyewitness testimony from guests and employees, including the game-show host Wink Martindale, who presented a local televised dance party where the Beach Boys played one of their earliest gigs, and the daughter of Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone, which set two episodes at P.O.P.
The book not only details the attractions and how they were conceived by a group of Hollywood special effects artists (including Maurice Ayers, who parted the Red Sea in the 1956 film The Ten Commandments) but also documents the park’s tumultuous finances. Gadget and money geeks may get off on learning that the groundbreaking Space Wheels (four Ferris wheels stacked two-high and rotated on arms to 92 feet in the air) cost $225,000 to build in 1959, but some of the book’s most enjoyable moments are the utterly random anecdotes. The authors reveal that two of the park chimps, Rob Roy and Tonga, escaped their cages and drank a gallon of My Sin perfume, which was poured into Neptune’s Fountain during the park’s opening ceremonies.
But Priore and Merritt dig much deeper, creating a meaningful context for the city of Venice (one of the beach communities that allowed ballrooms when dancing was outlawed in Los Angeles) and connecting the dots among the three visionaries who set the stage for Pacific Ocean Park. The first was Abbot Kinney, who in the early 1900s envisioned Venice as a cultural center by the sea, complete with canals and pleasure piers. The second was Charles “Doc” Strub, an early practitioner of painless-extraction dentistry, who built Santa Anita racetrack and developed Lake Arrowhead before dreaming up Pacific Ocean Park in the late 1950s and hiring Fred Harpman, the 30-year-old film designer who brought it to life. Harpman conceived the staggeringly beautiful Neptune’s Courtyard entryway to P.O.P., which featured a 60-foot Eero Saarinen-esque archway crowned by giant rotating seahorses. Sadly, Harpman’s design for an interactive urinal with targets in the men’s room never came to fruition.
In its time, however, Pacific Ocean Park not only introduced its fair share of innovations — an onsite FM radio station, a Teen Age Fair (hosted by Soupy Sales), and the widely imitated “Pay One Price” admissions — but left an indelible mark on pop culture and my consciousness. I saw it on TV shows — Route 66, The Fugitive, Where the Action Is, Get Smart, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and I Spy — and in films like The Wild Angels and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? It was everything I had ever dreamed of in an amusement park — weird, wondrous, groovy, and certain to meet with my parents’ disapproval. They took me to Disneyland in the 1960s — an experience that a kid who was more into the Wild Mouse than Mickey Mouse ultimately found tame and lame — and, though I never got a chance to visit P.O.P., at least I have Pacific Ocean Park: The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles’ Space-Age Nautical Pleasure Pier as a souvenir.
—David A. Keeps
David A. Keeps is a journalist and sometime TV host and producer whose work regularly appears in Travel + Leisure, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Find him on Twitter @davidkeeps and Instagram (davidkeepsinsta).